Tiger Woods impressed on his return to competitive action at the weekend and punters are now backing him to win the first major of 2018. In his pomp Woods was the best in the business and is second in the all-time list of PGA Tour winners. But he has struggled badly in recent years and plummeted to 1,199th in the world after a long spell out injured. He now says he is pain free for the first time in years and put in an encouraging performance at the Hero World Challenge in The Bahamas this week.
Woods carded a final round of 68 and finished ninth overall on -8. It was his first tournament since February's Dubai Desert Classic, from which he withdrew with back spasms, and his performance catapulted him up to the giddy heights of 668th in the world. Woods said he was hugely encouraged by his performance, waxed lyrical about the absence of pain for the first time in a long time and pointed to a bright future ahead.
He is now 41 but he still displayed magnificent power at the Hero World Challenge. Woods has no trouble keeping up with playing partner Justin Thomas when it came to driving distance, and Thomas ranked eighth for driving distance on the PGA Tour in 2017, averaging almost 310 yards off the tee. Some feared Woods would have to adapt his game and opt for finesse over brawn if he was to challenge younger rivals upon his return, but he showed his driving game remains superb. Thomas is the PGA Tour Player of the Year and Woods finished ahead of him. He was hitting it out with the younger boys, he had his speed back and his distance control was improving every day.
That form is ominous for the likes of Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, the golfing elite who hope to cement their greatness in 2018. Punters feel they saw enough from Woods in The Bahamas to back the 14-time major winner to return to his best next years. Almost half of the action on The Masters has gone on Woods, who is 25/1 with green-listed bookmakers William Hill and Stan James to win the first major of the year. It take place in April and the odds will continue to fall if Woods impresses in the buildup.
Odds of 25/1 do not sound great on the world number 668, but Woods has the potential to reach world number one status again if he returns to even a fraction of his best. He is considered by many to be the greatest of all time, and 41 is no age when you consider Jack Nicklaus continued winning majors until the age of 46. However, the game has arguably never been more competitive and the field for the Augusta Masters is loaded with talent.
Spieth, the 2015 Masters champion, is the favourite to win it, best priced at 8/1 with Betfred but as low as 6/1 with some betting sites. At 24 years of age, he has 17 years on Woods and that could give him a competitive advantage. World number one Johnson is also 8/1 with many bookmakers, including Ladbrokes, Paddy Power and 888 Sport, after another strong year. Rory McIlroy is 11/1 with Bwin, Jason Day is 16/1 with Ladbrokes and Rickie Fowler – who finished 10 shots ahead of Woods to win the Hero World Challenge – is 20/1 with Sky Bet. Throw in the likes of Thomas, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Jon Rahm and Henrik Stenson, and you have a wide field of younger, arguably hungrier and supremely talented individuals gunning for the win, along with dozens of other excellent players. It will be an uphill struggle for Woods, but many punters think he has what it takes to return to the top.